Anthony Black's When It Rains is built on an interesting premise: What if the Book of Job was about an atheist? More importantly, what if that non-believer practically worshiped statistics and averages? Faced with a set of seemingly unlikely tragedies, would he abandon his disbelief and seek solace in the arms of the Almighty? Spoleto audiences will find out the answer to that question when Canada's 2b theatre company performs Black's black comedy in Charleston this week.
Black, for one, finds a certain kinship with When It Rain's Jobian figure, Alan, an actuary at an insurance company who loves not only quoting statistics but basing his life around the comfort of probability. "We have a bias toward predicting things that reflect our worldview, making predictions that are based on our worldview as opposed to statistically," he says, pointing to how many hospital employees insist that emergency rooms are more, shall we say, batshit crazy on the night of a full moon, when the facts simply don't back up those beliefs.
"I'm not a romantic. I try to be a realist and to correct any exposed biases, and if looking at statistics is the way to give myself a more realistic view of the world, then that's my interest in it," the playwright says, noting that this is something that is seemingly in his blood.
"My dad was an actuary. He did probabilities. He was a real advanced mathematician," says Black, who is careful to put some distance between himself and Alan.
In the play, Alan's troubles begin when he inadvertently makes a clerical error that costs his employer millions and himself a job. And it only gets worse from there. "Actuaries are people who believe in probabilities and randomness. When the increasingly improbable things happen to him, is that belief tested?" Black says. "In a way, it's about a guy who goes from certainty and comfort in his certainty."
Of course, Black doesn't pin his entire story on reimagining the Book of Job. He also focuses on three other characters: Alan's sister Anna, his wife Sybil, and his brother-in-law Louis. They all face crises of a sort, some more dire than others. Take Anna for example.
She begins the play as a self-absorbed housewife looking for meaning in what one assumes are all the vapid places that vapid people look to fill the empty hole in their souls. Anna is trying to fill that void with Eastern religion and yoga; in another life, she'd be a self-absorbed mommy blogger or an arts-and-crafts island hopper, one who vows to be a painter one week and a sculptor the next. Like Alan, her faith is tested and she comes out — well, you'll have to see When It Rains to find out.
Louis' tale, however, is the most novel, if not comic, since it finds the philosophy professor living on the street like a wild dog and speaking only in French, much to the dismay of the English-first folks around him. One very long speech delivered by Louis is sure to aggravate Francophobes. But never fear. The entire epic soliloquy is translated into English and displayed on the wall behind the actors.
Which brings us to When It Rains' most interesting aspect: the use of a projection system to convey everything from television sets to dinner tables. The projector is also the vehicle by which Black delivers some of his best jokes, generally in the form of statements that contradict or clarify what the characters are saying or doing. For Black and his crew, incorporating the projector was a certainly a challenge. "There was tons of trial and error. We didn't know what software we were going to use. It was the production designer's first really involved projection design," he says. "I'd write snippets of scenes and he'd design looks for them and I'd write in response to them. The design and the text really evolved together."
The actors had to learn to interact with the projected images on the screen — watch out, Alan, don't put your hand through that table — and Black and his team had to explore such subtle matters as what is the proper amount of time to leave a blinking line of text on the wall to get the most laughs. "It all has a rhythm," Black says. "It was really fun to compose that stuff."